Yeshiva University Scholars Reflect on the Daf Yomi Phenomenon
Last night some 90,000 people gathered at the MetLife stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey for a ceremony celebrating the 12th completion of the daily reading of the Talmud (Siyum ha-Shas). The event followed similar ceremonies, in Jerusalem,Tel Aviv, Bnei Brak, London, Melbourne, and other cities and communities around the world, in which thousands more participated in person or via closed-circuit TV.
These events honor the conclusion and re-commencement of a seven-and-a-half-year cycle in which people—individually, with partners, or in groups—learn a folio page (two facing pages) of the Babylonian Talmud each day in a tradition known as daf yomi, “a page a day.”
The tradition was established by Rabbi Meir Shapiro, the Hasidic rebbe of Lublin. Rabbi Shapiro proposed the idea to the Agudath Israel convention in Vienna in August, 1923, and the enterprise was launched with much fanfare the following Rosh Hashanah. Over the course of the 12 cycles completed thus far, the number of learners has burgeoned to many tens of thousands around the world.
To mark the occasion, Jewish Ideas Daily invited several prominent thinkers, including Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter and Moshe Sokolow to reflect on the phenomenon of daf yomi and their own engagement with the practice. Read the full article here…
Two Thousand, Seven Hundred and Eleven Days in a Row
By Jacob J. Schacter
What is the most fundamental verse in the Torah, the anchor upon which everything rests? Ben Zoma suggested the well known Shema Yisrael: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4). In his view, the basic philosophical principles of Judaism found in this verse—the existence and unity of God—are most important. Ben Nanas pointed to the famous “Thou shalt love thy fellow as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18). For him, sound, sensitive interpersonal relations take priority. But there is a third proposal—one that on the surface seems much less significant than either of the other two. Shimon ben Pazi offered, “The one lamb you shall make in the morning . . . and the second lamb you shall make in the afternoon” (Numbers 28:4, 8; see R’ Jacob b. Solomon ibn Habib, Eyn Yaakov, introduction, end). How could this verse possibly be considered the most important in the Torah?
Shimon ben Pazi highlights a fundamental principle. Yes, philosophical knowledge and sensitivity in interpersonal relationships are vitally significant. But perhaps even more significant is the constant discipline and focus necessary for meaningful Jewish life, “in the morning” and “in the afternoon,” every morning and every afternoon, every day, always.
Like the twice-daily Temple sacrifice that serves as the context for these verses, the study of daf yomi requires an ongoing, consistent commitment, day in and day out, every single day—weekday, Shabbat, holiday, fast day—for two thousand, seven hundred and eleven days in a row.
On August 2 one cycle ends. On August 3 another cycle begins. And so may it be, forever.
Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter is University Professor of Jewish History and Jewish Thought and Senior Scholar at the Center for the Jewish Future at Yeshiva University.
How Talmud Came to Displace Bible
By Moshe Sokolow
The contemporary preoccupation with Talmud has rendered the phrase talmud Torah (literally, Torah study, referring principally to the Bible), almost an oxymoron. Up to the early modern period, knowledge of Bible was generally regarded as an indispensable tile in the mosaic of a learned Jew. Until the last century it was invariably the great Talmudist and halakhists who were themselves the biblical exegetes. (Rashi, Nahmanides and the Gaon of Vilna come readily to mind.) In the modern era, however, and the 20th century in particular, the scope of traditional erudition has contracted to include little more than the proverbial “four cubits” of halakhah and very few rabbinic giants have devoted themselves to the explication of the Bible. Indeed, it is questionable whether—with significant exceptions—they would even acknowledge a thorough knowledge of Bible as a desideratum, let alone a prerequisite, for recognition as a talmid hakham (scholar).
The current proliferation of sermonic anthologies on the weekly Torah portion (parashat ha-shavua), some by outstanding talmudic scholars, should not be mistaken for a renewed interest in Bible, for nearly all betray the telltale mark of amateurism: the lack of system and technique. When asked to assess the highly eclectic ArtScroll Torah commentary, Nehama Leibowitz (1905-1997) was wont to say that it was fatuous to compare Rashi, who invested a lifetime in developing a method of Torah study, to the Czypiznocker Rebbe (a figment of her dexterous literary imagination), who once revealed an insight into Torah during shalashudos (the Shabbat afternoon meal).
Perhaps, in time, we will witness a return to a status quo ante described by the Midrash:
Just as a bride is bedecked with 24 jewels and if even a single one is missing she is naught, so must a scholar be familiar with all 24 [biblical] books and if even a single one is missing he is naught.
Dr. Moshe Sokolow is the Fanya Gottesfeld-Heller Professor of Jewish Education and associate dean at YU’s Azrieli Graduate School Jewish Education and Administration.
Reprinted with permission from Jewish Ideas Daily.